The Mars Room
Here’s a line I toyed with when I was just starting to think about this novel that became The Mars Room: ‘I took a Luger into Peter Luger’s.’ I heard it in answer to the question: ‘What got you arrested?’
Peter Luger’s is a fancy ye olde style steakhouse in Brooklyn. A luger is obviously ... a luger. Why did I like this line? It’s funny. And sadly very American, even if the luger is a German pistol. The line got at something I’ve witnessed among people who’ve been cuffed, busted, convicted, and thrown together in a jail or sheriff’s bus or prison. People talk up a big game. In that context, fiction is better understood than it is by fiction writers. People know to exaggerate. Their exaggerations are a kind of truth, the “virtuoso-true”, as a friend of mine puts it, lying only in order to tell you, accurately, just what kind of [a deplorable guy] you are dealing with.
I had a friend in high school who would be face down on the ground, hands behind his back, and he’d insult the cop with a boot in his neck. He didn’t care. To win in that situation you have to be willing to lose everything. This same friend once escaped from jail. When he was caught, a paramilitary Swat team surrounded him on another friend’s roof. These ninja Swat turtles were screaming commands, in full gear, weapons raised. My friend was going to prison, no question. Later, prison killed him. But in that moment, on the roof, in front of his buddies, he took a drag of his cigarette, and said: ‘Man, you guys watch way too much TV.’
Art must be made with a commitment to genuine risk. The thing created must be smarter than the person who made it
None of this is in my novel. It’s background. Tone. Personal. And also: artistic imperative. If I didn’t make my novel funny, I would have failed to make it true. I didn’t need the luger gag. But my character Conan, who is the secret heart of the novel, would make such a claim if he could get away with it.
After I wrote the novel, although I felt I succeeded in cracking into the humour of my invented world, a world meant to harbour the dirty and beautiful secrets of the real one, something more significant was at stake, and had been all along. The novel is not polemical; I’m a broken record on this. And it shouldn’t be wedged into the entertainment column, either. How do people not understand this? The novelist is not competing with TV, for instance. The novel aims to be a work of art. It doesn’t aim to have a purpose, whether it’s to comfort, enrage, or “inform” its reader. Art is much more mysterious. What did Kant say? Purposive without purpose. What did Nietzsche say? Beyond good and evil, baby. Minus the baby. Here is what I say: art must be made with a pure intent, and a commitment to genuine risk. The thing created must be smarter than the person who made it. My book is smarter than I am about one particular thing, which I didn’t understand until after I made it, and that one thing is this: there are many who acknowledge that those who’ve gone to prison have been born without luck, and that bad luck can shape a person, unfairly. That is not so difficult.
But few are willing to see the reverse of it, that the lucky, too, are shaped by their luck. It is deeply tempting to count oneself among the good. To see goodness as goodness, and not as luck. But that is an illusion. In a modern, stratified, bourgeois society, life mostly goes how it goes due to circumstance. You aren’t good. You’re lucky. Which isn’t to say that you’re bad. But your life could have gone wildly different.
This is a confrontational truth that some might arrive at after reading my book, even as I did not drive toward, or intend for, the book to have that effect. And yet, I’m OK with it.